Once upon a time, like most folks who go vegan, I could scarcely imagine life without cheese. When I discovered cashew cream and nutritional yeast, though, I pretty much stopped even thinking about it. Every once in a while, though, I find myself longing for the days when I could make a meal out of a hunk of cheese, a baguette, and a crisp apple.
Over the years, I’ve tried most of the vegan “cheeses” out there, with mixed results. Daiya, the so-called vegan rock star, may be a decent imitation of processed cheese and can convincingly stand in for Velveeta, but it’s not exactly at home on a platter with Marcona almonds and quince paste, if you know what I mean. It’s also a hyper-processed mixture of mysterious, quasi-natural substances, each trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to mimic a different aspect of cheese’s natural flavor and texture, without having anything in common with the real thing. Put differently, Daiya is just flat-out fake.
In the last few years, though, the vegan community has begun to dabble in making real cheese with nut milks by culturing and fermenting them in the same way dairy has been for centuries. Until very recently, Dr. Cow and Treeline were the only players in this market, at least here on the East Coast. Personally, I am a huge fan of these products and find that, while they don’t resemble any particular dairy cheese, they are rich in umami and effectively scratch the itches I get for a salty, complexly flavored glob of creaminess to spread on bread. Folks who still eat dairy, though, do not seem to be very enthusiastic. My husband T, for example, could not even stomach a bite of Treeline, reporting that he found it excessively sour and chalky, and absolutely nothing like cheese.
Enter Kite Hill. The pet project of vegan chef Tal Ronnen of Crossroads fame, this company has created a huge buzz over the past year or so with the release of a line of almond-based cheeses that bear an uncanny resemblance to their dairy counterparts. Having read about these “game changing” cheeses all over the vegan mediasphere, I was thrilled to find their Soft Ripened Almond Milk Product in my local Whole Foods. It was quite pricey ($11 for a small wheel), but I’m willing to pay a premium for a high quality product crafted merely from almonds, salt, enzymes, and cultures.
I’ll outline the specifics below, but the bottom line is that, after trying Kite Hill, I am for the first time 100% convinced that it is possible to make nut milk versions of classic cheeses that are as complex and delicious as the dairy originals. I can’t wait to try the rest of the line, and to see what the company has in store for the future!
What impressed me:
- The cheese is made with only 5 ingredients (almonds, salt, enzymes, cultures, and water) and is produced through traditional cheese-making methods without thickeners, stabilizes, or artificial flavors of any kind.
- While many other nutmilk cheeses can be dry and crumbly, the texture of the Soft Ripened cheese is moist and spreadable and very similar to the dairy version, though slightly more springy (more like the texture of fresh mozzarella).
- Unlike the other nut cheeses out there, this cheese has an actual rind that was virtually identical in flavor, texture, and appearance to that of dairy-brie. It’s remarkable that they were able to accomplish this through traditional cheese making practices without artificially manipulating the product in any way.
- And, most importantly, the flavor! While initially very mild, the cheese developed more complexity with time in the days after it was opened. The flavor is creamy and unmistakably brie-like, though admittedly not identical to its cow’s milk counterpart. I’d suspect that one might guess it was a low-fat version of brie. (More about this below). This is the first vegan cheese that T, who still eats dairy, liked and found genuinely evocative of the so-called real thing.
Where I still think there’s room for growth:
- At $11 for 4 ounces, the price is prohibitively high for most folks, making it more of a luxury item than a potential staple.
- While relatively rich, this cheese was missing the creamy, unctuousness of the traditional French version. Unlike dairy brie which has about 8 grams of fat per serving, this cheese has only 4 grams. For some folks this is likely a benefit, but I found that this was the one thing that made it clear I was not eating the real thing. I think it’s inevitable that a nut cheese will never be quite as rich as the dairy version, but it seems there is room for a little more fat—perhaps through the addition of a richer nut.
- I found the flavor to be a touch too mild at first. It didn’t stand up well to a salty Triscuit, but fared better against a low sodium saltine (I unfortunately didn’t have a baguette on hand.) French dairy brie is also very mild, though, so the issue may just be the lack of fat I mention above. Also, I accidentally left the cheese out on the counter for a few hours, and this seemed to deepen the flavor and make it taste even more brie-like, so perhaps it just needed to ripen.
Readers, have you tried this or any of Kite Hill’s other cheeses? What did you think? What are your favorite non-dairy cheeses?